November 21, 2023 | Child Sponsorship

Christmas traditions around the world

A look into how sponsored friends and their families celebrate the holiday season

By Loretta Shea Kline

Five children sit with their legs crossed on the pavement in front of a chapel in the Philippines. With heads down and eyes focused, they work intently on a holiday project — crafting handmade instruments they’ll play while Christmas caroling with family and friends.

Jaypee uses a hammer to flatten metal bottlecaps, then pounds a nail into them to create a hole. Jhon takes the bottlecaps and strings them on a wire to complete a tambourine.

Alden taps a drum made from a recycled plastic jar with material from a balloon pulled taut at the top and secured with rubber bands. Meanwhile, Erica makes a drumstick from remnants of a broom and rubber bands.

Jillian puts pebbles in a water bottle decorated with holiday ribbon to create a shaker.

Making percussion instruments is part of a Filipino caroling tradition that the children, all sponsored through Unbound, look forward to every Christmas.

“It is fun and enjoyable for me,” said Erica, 11, who has been sponsored for six years. “Even if we are not good in singing, we still enjoy it, most especially when people around us sing with us and sometimes dance with us.

“The drum that I created creates a simple beat while we sing. It doesn’t need to be expensive; we just have to use recycled materials.”

Audiences appreciative of the carolers’ efforts reward them with treats and coins.

“After we’re done with the caroling, we divide the coins and candies for all of us,” Erica said. “We keep the coins for ourselves and just use them on Christmas Day.”

Making instruments for caroling is among the various Christmas traditions observed by families in Unbound programs around the world.


From left, sponsored children Jaypee, Alden, Jillian, Erica and Jhon in the Philippines make percussion instruments from recycled materials. The children will use the instruments while Christmas caroling with family and friends.

New clothes signal gratitude and a new start

Christmas in Kenya means gathering to enjoy the company of distant relatives, enjoying special meals, attending church services, dancing, singing, teaching children about traditional songs and dressing for the occasion.

Florence, elder sister of sponsored twins Juliet and Sharon, explained that buying a new outfit at Christmas is about more than looking stylish.

“Buying new clothes shows that we are ready to start a new beginning,” Florence said. “[It is] like starting a new year with different ideas, like we are overjoyed that God has enabled us to finish this year in good health; it is like thanking God.”

Sponsored youth Juliet, 18, holds up a dress that caught her eye at a shop in Kenya. A new outfit for Christmas holds special meaning for Kenyans.

The family of sponsored twins Juliet and Sharon sits down to enjoy a holiday meal of chicken, rice and chapati, a type of flatbread. Gathering with family for a special meal is an important part of Christmas celebrations in Kenya.

Passing a tradition from generation to generation

Rosa — a mom of three daughters in El Salvador, including sponsored students Jennifer, 20, and Dayana, 11 — feels proud that she’s managed to instill in her daughters a tradition she learned about as a little girl and that her mother and grandmother also followed. Their tradition is to display a scene depicting the nativity of Jesus in their home. Rosa’s family places their nativity scene under the Christmas tree.

“We celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus, who came to give his life for us,” Rosa said. “So, we celebrate his birth that day and we like it, because it's like remembering that he came and is still alive.”

Christmas for Rosa’s family also means music, dancing, decorations, fireworks, the girls putting on their finest clothes, and a special meal of chicken with rice, salad and soda to drink. It’s also time for reflection and giving and receiving grace.

“Maybe I would tell people this Christmas to enjoy it with your family because family is the best thing you have,” Rosa said. “Sometimes you have problems with your family, and you don’t have to start a new year with problems. You must leave them behind. It’s never too late to ask for forgiveness if one has offended.”

The nativity scene displayed under the Christmas tree is a tradition passed down through generations of Rosa’s family.

Rosa holds a dish with chicken, rice and salad that she cooks for Christmas. 

Tamales for Christmas

Herlinda, mother of five including sponsored son Alexis, 19, continues a time-honored tradition in Guatemala by preparing tamales for her family on Christmas and New Year’s. She learned to make tamales from her mother, and she’s sharing that knowledge with her daughters and granddaughters.

“As soon as we pass the celebration of All Saints Day (Nov. 1), people are already starting to talk about Christmas,” Herlinda said. “… It is a time when there is a lot of talk about love. Our grandparents told us we should love each other … because you must reform your life to be able to start the new year well, and that is what I hold to.”

Tamales may be made with corn, rice or potatoes as a base for the dough. A red sauce is also prepared that has tomatoes, garlic, chili pepper and some salt. The filling is normally chicken, but some people prefer beef or pork to be the center of enjoyment of this dish.

All ingredients must be cooked before wrapping them in green leaves called "mashan," or they can be wrapped in banana leaves. The wrapped tamales are then cooked over a fire once again so that all the ingredients mix well with their flavor and aroma.

The tamales may be served with bread or tortillas, along with a cup of coffee or hot chocolate. While the tradition of making tamales is always present for Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, some families prepare them for birthdays, weddings or other special occasions. Herlinda especially enjoys making them with her daughters and sister, Eugenia, to share the traditions of their community as a family.

“Sometimes we plan to prepare about 25 tamales, and we end up preparing 100 tamales,” Herlinda said. “But it is part of our life because we are alive and happy.”

Making tamales for Christmas is a family affair. Herlinda (foreground) and Eugenia, her sister, enjoy making them together.

Herlinda prepares ingredients for tamales over the fire in her kitchen in Guatemala. Making tamales is a Christmas tradition.

Preparing tamales at Christmas brings Herlinda joy as it signifies love of family and gratitude to God for good health. Eugenia, Herlinda’s sister, is shown working in the background as she helps with the tamale preparation.

… It is a time when there is a lot of talk about love. Our grandparents told us we should love each other … because you must reform your life to be able to start the new year well, and that is what I hold to.

— Herlinda, Mother of sponsored youth, Guatemala

Regional reporters Tristan John Cabrera, Nickson Ateku, Josue Sermeno and Oscar Tuch contributed photos and interviews for this story.